Satellite failure crashes US paging, broadcast systems

A PanAmSat satellite malfunction late yesterday interrupted paging service for up to 90% of US pager customers, and disrupted other satellite-based services such as news broadcasts and credit-card authorisation at retail stores. PanAmSat supplies the bulk of the Internet Group's international bandwidth in New Zealand and Australia. The company's Galaxy IV satellite has a control problem, according to PanAmSat. An automatic switch to an on-board backup unit was unsuccessful, officials said.

A PanAmSat satellite malfunction late yesterday interrupted paging service for up to 90% of US pager customers, and disrupted other satellite-based services such as news broadcasts and credit-card authorisation at retail stores. PanAmSat supplies the bulk of the Internet Group's international bandwidth in New Zealand and Australia.

PanAmSat's Galaxy IV satellite has a malfunctioning on-board spacecraft control processor, which serves to point the spacecraft in the right direction relative to earth, according to PanAmSat. An automatic switch to an on-board backup unit was unsuccessful, officials said.

The Galaxy IV is in its proper place in orbit but is slowly turning, unable to heed the pointing commands, according to Robert Bednarek, chief technology officer at PanAmSat.

"The result is that the spacecraft, while stable, cannot maintain its pointing to the earth and is slowly spinning," Bednarek said.

Though the exact number of people affected is unclear, the satellite failure rendered some companies utterly unable to continue their US customers' paging service. The US-based portion of PageMart Wireless's 2.7 million customers and PageNet Inc.'s 10.4 million customers are all without paging service, according to separate statements from the companies.

US paging customers are concentrated on the Galaxy IV satellite because of its location above the center of the continental US, according to PanAmSat.

Restoration of service requires substitute satellites, and PanAmSat has been scrambling to get the substitutes in place. The company's Galaxy VI satellite is being moved over to the Galaxy IV location, but will not arrive there for six days, officials said. Galaxy VI, the replacement, had been serving other customers, on the understanding that the satellite was a fleet spare and its service could be preempted, which has been done, they said.

Meanwhile, some of Galaxy IV's Ku-band customers -- paging, retail and automotive networks -- have been offered service on PanAmSat's Galaxy III-R satellite, which is nearby the malfunctioning Galaxy IV, according to PanAmSat. However, hundreds of thousands of antennas on earth must be reoriented towards the substitute before service can be fully restored, they said.

One PanAmSat customer, WavePhore Inc., said it must realign around 10,000 antennas in order to restore service to its customers. WavePhore's Networks division carries the news feeds for several news gathering agencies, and its customers have been asking for faxed instructions on how to realign the satellites, according to Glen Williamson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of WavePhore, in Phoenix.

The antennas must be manually realigned only by a quarter of an inch to be pointed properly to the replacement satellite, and WavePhore is faxing instructions to those customers who are requesting it, Williamson said.

Only around 25 percent of WavePhore's customers were on the misbehaving Galaxy IV, with the remainder on a FM sideband network, Williamson said. Moreover, the company was days away from finishing its Internet backup for both systems, but opted to shift over to PanAmSat's Galaxy III-R satellite when it was offered. Williamson called the satellite malfunction a "one in a million" event, and said that the mishap has not altered WavePhore's plans to use satellite. However, the malfunction does underscore the chancy nature of the physical world, according to Williamson.

"More than anything, it's a feeling of mortality that a network of this caliber can go down like this," he said.

PanAmSat did not know what was causing the malfunction in the Galaxy IV satellite, which is a nine-foot cube with two 50-foot solar wings and is made by Hughes Space & Communications. However, the statistical odds are such that it is unlikely the satellite was hit by another object, according to PanAmSat's Bednarek.

"That is close to the bottom of the list of things we're investigating," Bednarek said.

PanAmSat, in Greenwich, Connecticut, can be found on the World Wide Web http://www.panamsat.com/.

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